The last line of a Neil Morgan email had a way of exploding like a firecracker under your desk chair.

As we built Voice of San Diego, Neil didn’t spend his days in the office. He didn’t offer advice on how to write or report. He had a distinct role. Neil was VOSD’s motivator-in-chief.

He gave our otherwise anonymous little group his name and his words in those early days. More than anything, he pushed us to aggressively confront the city’s darkest problems head on, but with optimism and cheer.

That forward-looking smile impossibly came from a man who’d spent 50 years in the journalism trenches.

You see, it’s easy to become a cynic as a journalist. You have a front seat to the grossest shows of politics and power. It’s your duty to question everything.

Neil would demand that we’d do that questioning. Then his eyes would playfully squint, his smile would open up. And he’d issue a wild laugh or a subtle wink. That meant to do the hard work with joy and love. It was the foundation for a style — hard-hitting but fun — that we pushed for every day.

As I’ve read the obituaries, I detected a similar style in his broader relationship with San Diego. He was a socialite and an unabashed booster of the city. That made it even more powerful when he pounced on injustice or abuse.

This is how he mentored me.

As the lone journalist on VOSD’s board of directors for many years, Neil was the ultimate judge when journalism questions arose. When I deserved it, he backed me up time and again. When I needed to be pushed, he let me know.

During one board meeting, he asked me kindly but bluntly something like: “Do you think we’re doing enough investigative reporting?” Just the fact that he asked made me realize the answer to the question.

Neil was more than just a newspaperman. He was an author and public figure. One thing I hope he gets more credit for: being an innovator. At age 80, Neil, along with his friend Buzz Woolley, dreamed up something that few people could get their minds around in 2004 — an online only, nonprofit news organization.

Today, these kinds of organizations exist all around the country. They’re a major part of the journalism landscape.

To all of them, to VOSD’s staff, and to San Diego as a whole, I think I know what Neil would want to say to you.

Andrew Donohue was the editor of Voice of San Diego from 2005 to 2012. He’s now a senior editor at The Center for Investigative Reporting. You can reach him at adonohue@cironline.org.

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